The Gentle Giant
Sylvia Fowles is poised to dominate the WNBA.
by Sherron Shabazz / @SherronShabazz
Athleticism or stats don’t make a player great. Greatness comes from putting in extra hours in the gym and when the final buzzer sounds, knowing that win or lose, you’ve left everything on the court. Since being drafted second overall by the Chicago Sky out of LSU in 2008, center Sylvia Fowles has put up some pretty big numbers that didn’t translate into Ws.
In Fowles’ first four seasons in the WNBA, she has never made it to the postseason. In 2011 the team had a good start and lost its final five games of the season, destroying all playoff hopes.
Fowles remembers the meltdown of 2011 all too well: “A lot of things happened, self pity for one,” Fowles said. “We were down on ourselves. We threw a pity party for ourselves and we just didn’t get it done. It’s unacceptable on this level. As sad as it is, I learned a lot from it. I learned to go out there and play hard every chance that you get. The new additions to this team play the same way so it makes it easier for me as well.”
The Sky have never sniffed the playoffs and made significant overhauls to their roster in the offseason to change the course of the franchise. Chicago traded the second overall pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft to Seattle in exchange for Swin Cash and Le’Coe Willingham. The team also traded a 2013 second-round draft pick to San Antonio for the rights to Serbian sharp-shooter Sonja Petrovic, and signed former WNBA champions Ruth Riley and Ticha Penicheiro in free agency.
Cash, Willingham, Riley and Penicherio have a total of eight WNBA championships between them. Fowles knows that the championship experience that these ladies brought to Chicago is invaluable.
“The energy is better and we have veterans that actually talk and show you things that they see on the court,” said Fowles of the new-look Sky. “Having them here makes a big difference. Swin is like the energizer bunny so she contributes in that way. Ruth is not really fast with her feet [laughs], but she’s smart. She finds ways to get it done all over. Ticha is going to contribute to the team as well when she gets healthy.”
Sky Head Coach and General Manager Pokey Chatman knows that it takes experience to win on the pro level so she stocked her roster with winners. That’s all fine, but this is still Sylvia’s team and the hopes of a WNBA title begin and end with Big Syl. The new additions are all in their 30s, sans Petrovic. The weight of winning can’t be put on them. It goes squarely on the broad shoulders of Fowles.
A focused Fowles is capable of dominating every night. At 6-6 and 200 pounds, how can she not? Fowles is averaging 21.2 points per game (third in the WNBA), 13.8 rebounds (first), 1.8 blocks (second), and leads the league in field-goal percentage (64 percent).
Big Syl has put up big performances in the past that didn’t produce victories—this season is different. Chicago is tied for first place in the Eastern Conference (4-1), mostly due to the play of Fowles and shooting guard Epiphanny Prince.
Prince is leading the league in scoring (23.8 ppg) and is the perfect outside threat to compliment Fowles when she’s double-teamed in the post. “Me and Piph had great chemistry at the beginning of the season last year,” Fowles said. “She started off extremely well. What happened, I don’t know but I’m loving the way she started this season, and I’m hoping it stays this way throughout the whole course.”
The Sky’s young cornerstones have elevated their games to make Chicago an elite team in the WNBA. In Chicago’s past two games, the duo of Prince and Fowles have put the team on their backs and onto victory in dramatic fashion. Buzzer-beaters from both players capped off back-to-back wins against Washington and Atlanta.
At home against the Mystics, the Sky were down by eight points with two minutes to go in the game. Chicago fought back to win 65-63 on a Fowles lay-up with 0.2 seconds remaining on the clock.
“In the last two minutes I think we were down by eight—we just grinded it out,” Fowles said. “In the timeout, Coach Chatman told us to be patient and get stops. Piph got a steal, Ruth got a steal and Piph got an and one. It just all added up and I knew they were going to double Piph on the last play and if I had Monique [Currie] down there by myself I just had to show my numbers and Swin got me the ball.
“I was just focusing on catching the ball and taking my time ‘cause I tend to rush in moments like that,” Fowles added. “I was very poised and my teammates helped me out along the way.”
After such an exhilarating victory I wondered if the Sky would suffer from a hangover the following night against the Atlanta Dream, “No. Please don’t… oh my lord, if Pokey hears you say that she’ll have a stroke,” Fowles joked. “I’m not worried at all. We’re all smart, we’ll get iced up, get back to the hotel, get our rest and leave out of here pretty early in the morning. It’s part of your job. You have to be focused and I hope we start off on a good note in Atlanta.”
Get off to a good start the Sky did not. Chicago found themselves in a 22-point hole having to claw their way out with the hot shooting of Epiphanny Prince. Prince scored a career-high 33 points and hit a game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. The shot was set up by none other than Big Syl who set a bone crunching pick on Sancho Lyttle to free-up Prince for the shot.
Poise, execution and gutting out wins is what championship basketball is all about, and that’s what the Chicago Sky is displaying early on in the season. Before the word “playoffs” can even be uttered, Fowles has to take a flight over the Atlantic to take part in the 2012 Olympic Games.
Fowles, a 2008 Olympic Gold medalist, is excited to compete on the grandest of stages once again.
“Yes! It’s funny that you ask because you try not to get in that mode,” Fowles said. “You try not to get in that mode and just focus on what’s in front of you now, but I’m extremely excited. I can’t wait to get things going with those women.”
Upon her return from London, Fowles plans to get back to business as usual, “I don’t think it’s going to make you or break you,” said Fowles of returning to the WNBA from the Olympics. “It’s more mental than anything, being with this group of girls and having to play with a totally different group of girls and get that chemistry going and learn new plays. The first time, my biggest thing was coming back and running the wrong plays. I was running USA plays for the Sky. That was the hardest part but other than that it was fine.”
When Syl does return to Chicago in August her sights will be on the playoffs. “We want to make it to the playoffs but we have to take it game by game—it’s easier said than done,” Fowles said. “I don’t really have any personal goals. I just try to come to every game and do whatever my teammates need me to do for that game. That could be playing great defense, getting rebounds, or blocking shots. I just try to do everything that they need me to do.”
If Fowles keeps on “doing what her teammates need her to do,” she’ll be taking home a few pieces of hardware. Not only could she be named Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season, but she could also be named the league’s Most Valuable Player. Fowles was a candidate for the award last year until the team sputtered late in the season.
“You try not to focus on just the MVP picture,” Fowles said. “I feel like if I get things done on both ends of the floor and help my teammates out as much as possible it will work in my favor. It’s the same thing as last year, I really didn’t focus on it, I just went out there and did me and my teammates helped me get to that point. I feel like if I handle what I need to handle hopefully I’ll be a candidate again.”
She’ll be more than just a candidate when it’s all said and done.